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Ephemeralization fails

The pursuit of innovation and architectural progress has historically been linked to optimistic narratives. In 1938, architect, theorist and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book Nine Chains to the Moon introduced the term “ephemeralization” to describe how technological advancements trend toward allowing designers to do “more with less.”5 Fuller sees designers as having the capacity to radically change the expectations of the market via disruptive innovations. As he framed it:

There is not a chapter in any book of economics anywhere about doing more with less. Economists traditionally try to maximize what you have, but the idea that you could go from wire to wireless or from visible structuring to invisible alloy structuring did not occur to them at all. It was outside their point of view—beyond their range of vision."

Fuller calculates the ratio between the weight or mass of materials and their capacity for action (such as structural performance), establishing a metric of progress and a trajectory toward ever more ephemeral or lighter building blocks for society and culture. For Fuller, when examined as a global trend, ephemeralization proposed a narrative where design and technology lead toward prosperity. This ultimately allows for the finite resources available on our planet to be optimized for access by the rest of the population. Doing more with less was equated with more for the many.

As argued by Peter Joseph,7 the concept of ephemeralization can be closely linked with Jeremy Rifkin’s claim for how capitalism reduces the cost of products and services toward zero. Rifkin’s concept of zero marginal cost’* is the process in which the initial costs of industrialization and innovation are distributed through the products or value produced by any system.This results in making every copy of a product cheaper than the previous copy, i.e., a descending curve trending toward zero. Examples like computer technology are used by Rifkin to demonstrate an economic trajectory where the initial investment could be considered negligible in relation to the value produced over time. For Rifkin, the trajectory toward zero

AND 1.2 Buckminster Fuller holding up tensegrity sphere. Tensegrity demonstrates his principle of ephemeralization, where structural stability is achieved with fewer materials

FIGURES 1.1 AND 1.2 Buckminster Fuller holding up tensegrity sphere. Tensegrity demonstrates his principle of ephemeralization, where structural stability is achieved with fewer materials.

Source: Images Courtesy by The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

marginal costs defines the road map toward the eclipse of capitalism, allowing for a new economic system to emerge in its place.

While the narrative of ephemeralization through optimization and technological innovation can on paper be seen as a contributor toward prosperity, the beginning of the 21st century has exhibited an acute growth of economic inequality, as argued and demonstrated by the research ofThomas Piketty.9 The development of inequality would therefore suggest that innovation and the capacity of doing more with less disproportionally benefits a few over others. Piketty states that the rate of return in capital (as in wealth) is larger than the rate growth of the economy (as in labor). This creates a trend where over time, inequality increases.Trickle-down economics, therefore, aiming to provide with innovation at the very top of the pyramid, disproportionately benefits those who already play with an economic advantage. Ephem-eralization fails not through its capacity to do more with less but through its capacity to distribute its innovations on economic efficiency to the population.

As has been argued by Pier Vittorio Aureli, increases in performance and efficiency in production can be coupled with a perpetual necessity for creativity. For Aureli, these are central features of our current capitalist system, one that has managed to manufacture scarcity. Aureli argues that capitalist culture has always tried to obtain more with less. Aureli presents technology as a mechanism by which capitalists are able to fulfil the very notion of industry, writing that “to be industrious means being able to obtain the best results with fewer means.”111 Aureli goes further by pointing out that creativity, as the most generic faculty of human life, is sought by capital to be exploited as its main labor power. He states:

| I]n an economic crisis, what capital’s austerity measures demand is that people do more with less: more work for less money, more creativity with less social security. In this context, the principle of“less is more” runs the risk of becoming a cynical celebration of the ethos of austerity and budget cuts to social programmes.11

From Aureli’s perspective, it appears that Fuller’s ephemeralization is bound to play into the hands of capitalist production, offering cost-reducing opportunities for wealth accumulation. Aureli’s position fails to acknowledge that not all production is equal; more with less can result in an extractive practice if imposed by a hierarchical actor but can also result in an emancipatory strategy from grassroots organizations. Self-production, as we will explore later in this volume, is able to break free from market logic and from external impositions of asceticism, especially in the manifestation of local values.

 
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